Everett Lee was already a concertmaster leading white theater orchestras when he made Broadway history in 1945. He was appointed music director of Leonard Bernstein’s “On the Town” in September 1945, making him the first Black conductor to lead production on Broadway. Per the Chicago Defender, Lee was the first Black conductor “to wave the baton over a white orchestra in a Broadway production.”
Despite racial barriers, he went on to achieve other firsts. In 1953, he conducted the Louisville Orchestra in Kentucky — the first time a Black man led a white orchestra in the South. Two years later, Lee conducted the New York City Opera, another first for him. He could have done more but for the racism that Black classical musicians faced in the United States.
He went on to pursue an amazing career in Europe, holding conducting positions in Germany, Colombia, and Sweden. Lee also made guest appearances in many other parts of the world. While making waves internationally, his desire was to return to the U.S. but he wanted to do so only after he had become the music director of a major orchestra, according to The New York Times.
Born on August 31, 1916, in Wheeling, W.Va., to a barber and a homemaker, Lee started playing violin at eight years old. His musical talent inspired his family to move to Cleveland in 1927, where he became an athlete in junior high and led the Glenville High School orchestra as concertmaster. While working as an elevator operator, he met the Cleveland Orchestra’s conductor, Artur Rodzinski, who started mentoring him.
Lee studied at the Cleveland Institute of Music and enlisted in the Army after graduating in 1941. He trained to become a Tuskegee Airman in Alabama but was released after getting injured. In 1943, Lee moved to New York to play in the orchestra for “Carmen Jones,” an Oscar Hammerstein II rewrite of Georges Bizet’s “Carmen”. A year later, Lee moved from the concertmaster’s chair to conduct Bizet’s music when the conductor was snowed in, The New York Times said. Then in 1945, as music director of “On the Town”, he made Broadway history amid Jim Crow segregation in performance.
Lee then played in the violin section of the New York City Symphony for Leonard Bernstein and studied conducting in Tanglewood in 1946.
“Like most young people, I thought I could go out and conquer the world,” Lee told the New York Amsterdam News in 1977.
Racism impeded his progress in the U.S. He created the Cosmopolitan Little Symphony, an integrated ensemble in 1947 in response to the barriers he faced, but didn’t get positive results so he left for Europe. He led a traveling opera company in Germany followed by the Berlin Philharmonic in 1960. He made it big in Sweden, where he succeeded Herbert Blomstedt as music director of the Norrkoping Symphony Orchestra from 1962 to 1972.
Lee also spent time in North America, working with the New York, Cleveland, Baltimore, Atlanta, and Cincinnati orchestras, and so on. One of his dreams was to conduct the New York Philharmonic and that came to pass on the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1976 when he led a program of Sergei Rachmaninoff, Jean Sibelius and David Baker’s “Kosbro”, according to the Times.
An early pioneer of African-American conductors in the mid-1900s, Lee passed away in his home in Malmö, Sweden on January 12, 2022, at the age of 105. He is survived by his wife, Christin Lee, their son Erik Lee, and his daughter Dr. Eve Lee, whose mother Sylvia Olden Lee was Lee’s first wife.
Decades before his death, he had recalled being denied violin auditions at two well-known U.S. orchestras.
“I then made up my mind that if I can’t join you, then I will lead you,” he said in a 1997 interview. “I did make good on that promise to myself.”